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Taxes--or Taxes?

I heartily recommend this post from Megan Carpentier at Glamocracy, the news blog of Glamour magazine. In it, Carpentier makes the crucial--but frequently missed--distinction between raising taxes generally and raising taxes on you specifically. She notes, for example, that as a young woman living on a modest income, she'd benefit a lot from Barack Obama's tax plan but only a little from John McCain's.

Her basis for this is a recent report by the highly respected Tax Policy Center. It's worth checking out if you haven't read it yet. But the main point comes across pretty clearly in this graph, which you may also have seen.

Note who benefits most from Obama's tax plan (the poor and middle class) and who benefits most from McCain's (the wealthy). Or, to put it more crudely, the Obama plan shifts money down the income scale, while the McCain plan shifts it further up (further, because that's what the Bush tax plans did).

Ezra Klein is worried the media won't get this distinction. I do, too--in part because I've seen this happen before. It was in 1993, after President Bill Clinton proposed his first budget. As I wrote at the time, in an article for the American Prospect (where I was then employed):

Recall that while the president proposed to raise some $305 billion in taxes, nearly all of it was to come from the very wealthy. For 15 million working Americans he offered a tax break (in the form of an expanded earned income tax credit); the middle class would pay an energy tax costing the average family only $200 a year. The gas tax was eventually reduced to a pittance, yet polls show as many as 70 percent of Americans still think Clinton raised taxes on the middle class.

The New Republic's Michael Kinsley, among others, has suggested that the nation's intellectual and media elite may have been the source of this misconception; after all, many of them were among the 1.2 percent of Americans hit by the income tax hike. That would certainly explain the cover of Newsweek on March 1, 1993. Following the president's budget speech, the editors ran a cover with the words "tax," "spend," and "cut" stacked on top of each other. No problem there, perhaps, except that the word "tax" ran in 286-point type, or about four inches high and extending across the entire page. The word "cut" appeared in 36-point type, which is less than half an inch high and barely an inch wide. Clinton had actually promised spending cuts of $270 billion, and only households making more than $140,000 a year faced increased income tax rates. Is it any wonder millions of Newsweek readers and many others who spotted the cover in bookstores or the supermarket came away with a different impression?

Let's hope they--er, we, since I'm part of the media, too--get it right this time.

--Jonathan Cohn